“The best designers in the world all squint when they look at something. They squint to see the forest from the trees — to find the right balance. Squint at the world. You will see more, by seeing less.”

– John Maeda, graphic designer, computer scientist, university professor, author


“The best art makes your head spin with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clearer.”

– John Maeda, Laws of Simplicity

“Become a light bulb instead of a laser beam…You can either brighten a single point with laser precision, or else use the same light to illuminate everything around you.”

– Nicholas Negroponte

BOOK REVIEW: Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda

Laws of Simplicity

This was my first read on design theory – the title, subtitle, cover design and author of Laws of Simplicity all appealed to me at once. The book presents a convincing case for the importance of simplicity and user-friendliness in the field of product design.

The author, John Maeda, is a digital artist and computer scientist. He’s a former Associate Director of MIT’s media lab, and currently the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
The 10 Laws of Simplicity – Put Simply

There are 10 “laws” of simplicity – each presented as a chapter. My personal favorite is the # 1 Law: Reduce – “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

I even found a nice desktop image of the Reduce law, by the author/digital artist:

Laws of Simplicity - John Maeda - Desktop Pattern

This blog post does a nice job of summarizing each law one by one. They’re pretty straightforward and although I read this book almost a year ago, I only recall the 1st Law causing me to pause a moment in consideration; the rest are sort of common sense presented in style.

Simplicity of Product Design

Apple is constantly referred to throughout the book, for creating consumer products with an emphasis on usable and attractive design. The iPod stands out as a prime example of a product whose form factor contributes significantly to the overall appeal. It’s not just a way to carry music; it’s an attractive, sleek & simple way to carry your music. There’s a discussion of the successive generations of iPod, with improvements made to the physical interface for improved usability. Remember the circular trackpad? Sort of a precursor to gestures.

I especially loved Maeda’s analysis of the iPod’s reflective mirror-like backside, as a way to make the device look and feel even smaller and lighter.

Noteworthy Mentions:

  • Raymond Loewy = Coke bottle, 1930s. Concept of “streamlining”
  • Wolfgang Weingart = master of Swiss typographic design. Repetition breeds simplicity.
  • Paul Rand – logo design for ABC, IBM, UPS, Westinghouse
  • Jonathan Ive – Apple
  • Ikko Tanaka – father of modern Japanese graphic design
  • German design: gestalt. Design fits perfectly with the mind’s idea of what it should be. (e.g. Audi, BMW, Braun)

The Creative Economy and Right-Brained Thinking


“Fungi and Flowers”, Fred Tomaselli

One night recently I found myself in an internet wormhole, researching the question of whether a graduate arts degree was worthwhile.

I wound up on a simple, one-page article in the NYTimes from 2008, titled “Let Computers Compute. It’s the Age of the Right Brain“. It discusses the powerful potential of “right-brained” thinking and how it can be applied to the business world. The whole “think outside the box” cliche is essentially this; creative thinking when applied to problem solving can be far, far more valuable than standard, logical approaches.

Programming, number crunching and data analysis can be outsourced; creativity cannot. So for those of us with a creative inclination, this is wonderful news. Right-brained thought is commodified as it is celebrated.

I found it interesting that this article was pre-economy crash of 2008. I don’t think it would have made sense to publish this piece directly after the bank collapses in fall of ’08. So I’m happy this article made its way out there in time.

It’s a message Dr. Sperry seemed to understand when he accepted the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1981. “The great pleasure and feeling in my right brain,” he said, “is more than my left brain can find the words to tell you.”

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